Shoal Bass Hybridization in the Chattahoochee River Basin near Atlanta, Georgia

The shoal bass (Micropterus cataractae) is a sport fish endemic to the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Basin of the southeastern United States. Introgression with several non-native congeners poses a pertinent threat to shoal bass conservation, particularly in the altered habitats of the Chattahoochee River. Our primary objective was to characterize hybridization in shoal bass populations near Atlanta, Georgia, including a population inhabiting Big Creek and another in the main stem Chattahoochee River below Morgan Falls Dam (MFD). A secondary objective was to examine the accuracy of phenotypic identifications below MFD based on a simplified suite of characters examined in the field. Fish were genotyped with 16 micro- satellite DNA markers, and results demonstrated that at least four black bass species were involved in introgressive hybridization. Of 62 fish genotyped from Big Creek, 27% were pure shoal bass and 65% represented either F1 hybrids of shoal bass x smallmouth bass (M. dolomieu) or unidirectional backcrosses towards shoal bass. Of 29 fish genotyped below MFD and downstream at Cochran Shoals, 45% were pure shoal bass. Six hybrid shoal bass included both F1 hybrids and backcrosses with non-natives including Alabama bass (M. henshalli), spotted bass (M. punctulatus), and smallmouth bass. Shoal bass alleles comprised only 21% of the overall genomic composition in Big Creek and 31% below MFD (when combined with Cochran Shoals). Phenotypic identification below MFD resulted in an overall correct classification rate of 86% when discerning pure shoal bass from all other non-natives and hybrids. Results suggest that although these two shoal bass populations feature some of the highest introgression rates documented, only a fleeting opportunity may exist to conserve pure shoal bass in both populations. Continued supplemental stocking of pure shoal bass below MFD appears warranted to thwart increased admixture among multiple black bass taxa, and a similar stocking program could benefit the Big Creek population. Further, selective removal of non-natives and hybrids, which appears to be practical with phenotypic identification, may provide increased benefits towards conserving genetic integrity of these shoal bass populations.

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